Hello, and welcome back to Brain in the Game. Brain in the Game is a podcast that's been specifically designed for athletes, coaches, and parents who are looking to do their sport just that little bit smarter. And I'm your host, Dave Diggle.
In this, Episode 94, we're going to look at how do you perform under pressure. So in this, Episode 94, we're going to look at the three main ingredients that are required to teach an athlete how to perform under pressure.
Now, as athletes, we want to perform at our best. It's what we do, it's why we strive to do what we do. It's the cornerstone of being a competitive athlete. We want to compete, but we want to be the best at what we do. We want to be the best out there. So with that comes some internal pressure. We pressure ourselves to be the best version of ourselves, each and every time. Those big situations can be as simple as a competition. It could be part of a selection criteria. It could be a big tournament, maybe an Olympics or World Championships, or it could be as simple as you going out and learning a new skill.
So performing under pressure is so unique to us as individuals. There's no one size fits all. But there are three strategies that we have to master in order to perform under big pressure situations. Now, I'm a very proud Englishman and I love my sport, but I've got to be really honest with you, when it comes down to penalties for our football team, soccer for those of you somewhere around the world, I know we're in trouble. The second our team look to have to utilise penalties to win the game, I'm not sure we can do it. Now that's not because they're not good enough, because clearly they are. They're incredibly talented athletes. But when it comes to penalties, there's something missing. And for me, it's that ability to perform a closed skill, because that's what we're talking about here, a skill that is just a single execution skill, under pressure. Now that might be a club game or it might be in front of 80,000 spectators. The reality is, as a professional and a high performing athlete, we should be able to execute; it doesn't matter what the situation is. But as a proud Englishman, it's not always the case.
Let's just flip the script. In Australia, they just had the Women's FIFA World Cup, and there were some phenomenal players on display who did some absolutely amazing things. But I want to talk about one moment in particular that, for me, demonstrates what being able to perform under pressure really is. And that was when Australia and France had the penalty shootout to progress forward. Now both teams had gone for 90 minutes without scoring a goal, plus stoppage time. Then they went for another 30 minutes of extra time, still nil-nil. And so they had to step up and perform a penalty shootout. Both teams have phenomenal players. A lot of them play around the world and are really good at what they do. However, historically, when we look at penalty shootouts, very rarely does it go past the top five players for the shootout. Yet with the Australia and the France game, it was goal for goal along and save for save. And when you look at the way that the players stood up, executed those closed skills, I think that really does demonstrate that mental tenacity and mental toughness that we're going to unpack in this episode.
I want to focus on the three core ingredients that every athlete needs to master in order to be able to perform under pressure. We want to identify what they are, why they work, and how we can develop them. Those three ingredients are
1. Process – our blueprints
2. Mental toughness; and
3. Mental resilience – riding the urge.
That's a very broad statement, I know, and it doesn't go into much detail. So let's go through each one of these and unpack exactly what they are, how they work, and how you can build them into your program.
So let's start with ingredient number one, which is process, your 'how'. Simply, if you can't do it, then you can't compete it. You've heard me talk before, you have to be able to compete in order to be competitive. And that's as simple as you've got to be able to do the skill. If you're expecting to step up in a high pressure situation and execute something that you don't or can't normally execute, then the reality is it's unlikely to occur. It doesn't matter how many movies you've watched. The reality is you've got to be able to competitively compete that skill in order to do it under pressure.
And there are a couple of layers to this. You have to be able to do the skill by understanding how that skill works. I'm sure each of those athletes that practiced understood exactly how they take a penalty shot. It's a unique thing to them individually, how they stand, how they prepare, how they execute that skill. In order for that to work, we have to learn how to trust that skill. Not only understand the mechanics of how that skill works, we need to be able to trust it. Because trust equals success. Success equals delegation, and delegation equals that subconscious performance we talk about. When we hit that sub-C performance, that's flow state, in the zone. So whenever you watch an athlete under pressure who executes so well, what you can see is that athlete executing with optimal trust in how they do that skill. And they're in the zone. They look incredibly focused and they trust what they're doing. So that's something that we can all get into, that flow state, that optimal degree of focus with minimal distractions. Now, if we think about those penalty shootouts, particularly between that Australia and France game, there was some 80,000 people in that stadium.
There was 4.9 million people in Australia alone watching that game, let alone the millions around the world who were sitting on the edge of their seats as that penalty shootout played out. So if ever there was a time to be under pressure, it was in that moment. If they didn't perform, they didn't progress. And I'm sure every single one of those athletes understood that. They understood the severity of what they were about to undergo. Yet the focus, the execution, and the trust in how they do what they do, they'll tell you that they stood up and they just did what they did in training. And in there is part of what we're talking about here. How do you train that? From a mindset perspective, how do you train that optimal trust?
Your brain and my brain looks to cut corners. And when we get put under pressure and time sensitive, our brain will go, 'Okay, have I done this before? Have I been here before? And if I have, what did that look like? What did I do?' And we're more likely to replicate something that we've already prepared. Makes sense, doesn't it? Our brain is being efficient and effective in its 'how'. It knows exactly what it needs to do.
So the quality of that blueprint becomes imperative under pressure. If that blueprint that we want to execute – in this case, we're talking about a penalty shot – if that's incomplete, the way that we hold each part of that skill together is with our emotions:
How did it feel?
Did it feel good?
Did it feel comfortable?
Did it feel confident?
And when we're not under pressure, that might seem okay, that might work. When we get put under pressure, those emotive connections, that glue that's holding that together is under a lot of pressure and most likely is going to snap. And because we don't have such a good understanding in the detail and the 'how', then we're more likely to falter under pressure.
Again, if we think about Beckham, I'm not sure what was going through his mind. I'm not sure that he actually followed his normal process, purely and simply because that was so uncharacteristic of his ability to take penalties. So if we think about what we want to do, we want to have such a detailed understanding around our blueprint – our 'how', the process – take out emotion, the less emotion the better. The more process and pragmatic that blueprint is in our mind, when we get put under pressure and our brain goes, 'Have I been here before? What do I do? Oh, there we go, that blueprint. Let's execute that.' – that makes sense. That's going to work better for us. We're more likely to be consistent and perform under pressure. We've also got this trusted mechanism in our head.
Speaking of trust, if we've got a really good blueprint, but we don't trust it, we've not executed it well enough, we don't know that we can do it frequently enough, there's not the consistency behind it, and we don't necessarily believe in that skill to the way that we want to be able to believe in that skill, then it comes from our subconscious, our trust, our flow mechanism all the way back to prefrontal cortex, and we start to overthink, 'What if? What if I can't do this? What if it goes wrong? What if these 80,000 people see me make this big error?' Now, as an athlete, I've been there. I'm sure you've been there. I'm sure there's many, many times that you've gone to perform something that you're not 100 % believing in and gone, 'But what if?'
If we allow that negative language to get in and those 'what ifs' become overwhelming, then we start to change our 'how'. And we'll start to execute in a way that isn't the way that we would normally execute that skill, case in point, David Beckham. What we want to do is be able to build optimal trust. When we build optimal trust, our brain delegates it to our subconscious. And our subconscious doesn't think about the how, it just follows that blueprint. And as much as we want to be able to control ourselves in the moment, the smartest way to control ourselves is to trigger the blueprint. So the solution to the ingredient number one is know and trust your process. The better you know your process, the better you can execute under pressure.
Now, let's look at ingredient number two, mental toughness, your standard. There are two metrics we look at when we're gauging our mental toughness. That is our mental engagement and our mental sustained focus. That is how focused are we and for how long. These two metrics are a good indicator how we're going to perform under pressure. If you think about our mindset when we come to training, and we come to performance, and then we come to big games, you'll probably say that each one of those have a different intensity. Well, if you're human, you probably do.
The reality is if we want to perform at a certain level under pressure, we've got to train that level. And what I say to all of my athletes is, we need to be able to switch into our high performance mode as quickly as possible and teach ourselves to stay there. Now, in training, it's very, very easy to be engaged and disengaged to talk to our friends, to listen to the coach, to learn new skills. And we get this real roller coaster process that we go through. That roller coaster process is training our brain that we can engage and disengage, to multi-task, to do multiple different things, and we have a high and a low degree of focus. If we're looking at how we compete under pressure, we don't want this roller coaster looking mindset. What we need is a high degree, gold standard mindset.
Mental toughness is not just how gritty you are, it's more science. It's not just about tenacity, but it's about that whole engaging your brain to be at a certain level to be able to perform under pressure and knowing you can do it.
When we talk about performance mental toughness, it boils down to how long can you stay focused on task. If you can stay focused on that task for a long period of time irrespective of what's going on around you, then under pressure, you can do that again. It's a learnt process. It's a strategy like everything we do in sport, it's a process that needs to be nurtured, trained, and trusted. I've discussed this before. The quality of our preparation will dictate the quality of your performance. That doesn't mean if you have to train a certain way that week to be able to perform. But if you've never trained that way, then you probably won't do it in the heat of battle. So the quality of our preparation is critical in our belief mechanism, in our trust to know under pressure, Yeah, I can do this.
In 1950, Kurt Richer was a professor at John Hopkins, and what he did, he did an experiment called the HOPE experiment. And what he did was a really awful experiment. He grabbed a whole bunch of rats and he threw them into a bucket of water. And what he was looking to do was see how long they survive before they drown. Like I said, it was incredibly inhumane. But we learned a lot about behaviour from his experiment. So let's just unpack that from an athlete's perspective.
Part of the results from this experiment was that the vast majority of these rats, and now it didn't matter if they were pet rats or they were wild rats, the vast majority of them died very, very quickly. They drowned. They gave up hope. If they couldn't get to the side and get out, they tended to give up, sink to the bottom and drown, which is absolutely awful. So what he then did, he looked at this and said, 'Okay, how do I change the mindset of these rats?' And what he did was just before they were about to give up and sink and drown, he took them out of the bucket, dried them off, he fed them, he watered them, he gave them a rest. And then he put them back in the bucket to see how long they would last the second time around. And what he noticed was that they would last for so much longer. They would go for hours instead of minutes. And he couldn't understand why.
The rats weren't overly giving of information. They didn't tell him why they decided to stick around for longer. But the theory was that these rats knew that at some point they were going to get rescued, so they just stuck at it. So what this proves to us is, we need proof. If we have proof that we can do something and we've done it in a situation, we're more likely to be able to push through challenging times in order to do that same thing. We have more hope of success. So this rat experiment allows us to look at the way that we prepare. If we never train and perform under those stressful situations, then we don't know that we can. If we train in those stressful situations and we execute in a way that we want to execute, then we've got that proof. So when we're standing out there in front of these 80,000 people who are screaming and shouting, then we know, 'I've done this before. I know that this is going to work. I've just got to be able to push through the uncomfortable.' So what does that mean for us as athletes?
When we train, we need to engage our performer mode, our performer focus level. So our mental toughness needs to be able to be switched on and sustained for the whole session. So when we're tired, when we're fatigued, when we're under pressure, when things aren't working for us, we know that we can sustain that. We know that we can keep going. We've got enough reserve in the tank. We've proved it to ourself. So when we look at ingredient number two, mental toughness, the secret to that is being able to engage our ultimate focus and sustaining that through the whole period, irrespective of what's going on around us.
Just on a side note, over the last few years, I've created some audio tracks that are designed specifically to disrupt the thought process of the athlete while they're executing their skills, their closed skills. Now, this audio is designed with multiple different layers of stimulants, different sounds, different levels, different pitches. And what that does is it confuses the brain. During that process, it teaches the athlete to be able to focus through that. So mental toughness absolutely can be taught.
So let's look at ingredient number three, and that's mental resilience. And you probably heard me say at the start of this, it's about riding the urge wave. For those of you who've never heard about the urge wave, it's a psychological term that's used to help people deal with the uncomfortable. Now, historically, it's used to help people get through addictions, to get through bad habits and bad processes in their life: negative thought processes, negative internal dialogue. We're going to use it for a high performance athlete purpose. So we're going to learn how to ride the urge wave.
The two ingredients we've had before here, which is process and mental toughness, are predominantly skill development protocols. And as athletes, you're very used to embedding these systems and processes to get an outcome. And as such, you probably find them quite easy to integrate into your training.
This third ingredient is a little bit more tricky, because what we're doing is we're pushing up against our natural survival mechanism, because the urge to deal with something because we're uncomfortable – so again, when we think about these girls that stood out there taking these penalties, I'm sure they weren't comfortable, but they did push through that uncomfortable. So they learnt to ride that urge wave, that urge of, 'I don't want to be here.'
That urge stimulates our fight, flight, or freeze mechanism in our brain, that survival mechanism that we all have. Learning to push through that and not react to that is a skill set. And this is where the uncomfortable might be a little uncomfortable at the start. But learning to be able to push through this really will benefit you as an athlete and know that there's a process involved in order to do that.
So what does that look like? Essentially, what we're going to be doing is playing cat and mouse with our emotions, our internal dialogue, our internal feelings, our internal fight, flight, or freeze mechanism. When we get into that uncomfortable position, if we don't learn to push through it and we react to it, then we tend to change how we do what we do. We go back to the first part of these three ingredients and our process. If we react, we tend to change the process. And when we tend to change the process, what we tend to do is lose focus. So those first two ingredients that you've worked really hard to develop, if you don't develop this third ingredient, it can wipe out the first two very, very quickly.
So this cat and mouse process is designed specifically to teach you as an athlete to be able to push through the uncomfortable, to be uncomfortable with the uncomfortable. And look, I don't think anybody's really ever comfortable with the uncomfortable, but we do have a resilience to know that, 'If I follow process, I'm going to get the outcome that I want. Once I've learnt how to do that, I'm going to integrate that into my performance DNA, how I do what I do.' So that just then becomes part of your process.
When we consider that our internal voice is designed specifically to protect us, it will do everything it possibly can to derail us, to stop us, to stop us making a fool of ourselves, from hurting ourselves, from embarrassing ourselves, from making that big mistake. And when you look at these penalty shots, those that missed their shot at goal or was saved, look at the disappointment on their face. They will remember that for the rest of their performance career, if not, further. So it has a huge impact on them. And rightly so, it's important to them. They want to perform. Remember we said at the start, they're highly competitive athletes. They want to the best version of themselves all the time.
So when we look at that whole necessity to perform, that internal voice that's telling us, 'Maybe you don't want to be here. Maybe you haven't done enough. Maybe you're not good enough. Don't step up. Don't go out there. Get somebody else to go.' That whole design mechanism inside our brain, that survival mechanism is just trying to protect you. But it's also incredibly risk adverse. It doesn't want to be there. It's going to do everything it can to minimise all risk. Not just the real risk, but all risk. We've got to learn to be able to push through that. It's not a switch. It's an inbuilt trigger that's designed to push you away. And if it doesn't push you away from there, it's going to push you away from other things. So let's learn how to ride that urge wave. And what we've got to do is to be able to get really good at controlling our emotions under pressure.
So as I said, this ride wave is a psychological process designed specifically to gain more comfort around the uncomfortable. And in order to do that, it's almost like an immersion technique. We've got to expose ourselves to the uncomfortable to know that we can push through that, and being comfortable with that and understanding it's just part of our mechanism, and not reacting to that, instead responding to that. Now it might sound like I'm playing semantics with words between react and respond, but a react is an emotional reaction. A respond is a data-driven choice. So you want to choose to respond by making the right decisions. How do I do this? What's my process? Rather than reacting to changing everything to force an outcome. That's where respond versus react becomes a critical decision making process.
So what are the processes to going through this skill, going through surfing this urge? Well, step number one is accepting the urge is going to occur. So being nervous, being out there, having those butterflies, realising this is an important moment, realising that, 'Hey, I'm standing here in front of these 80,000 people. I've got to do this closed skill. I've got to shoot at the goal, and I want to score, and it's making me uncomfortable. It's making me nervous...' Yep, it will. Be okay with that. If it's not a World Cup shooting for penalty and you're going out there to compete at a club competition, you're still going to have those same nervous urges.
You're still going to have that voice inside your head that's saying, 'Maybe what if I haven't done enough? Maybe what if I don't need to be here? Maybe what if I just run out the door and I don't come back?' Being able to push through those, allows you to take control.
The second part of this is notice when those urges start to occur. What we tend to do as humans is not see the early warning systems. Now, I talk about chevrons, and what a chevron is, is if you're driving down the motorway or the freeway or the highway, depending on where you are in the world, and you come on the slip road off the motorway, highway or freeway, what we tend to have is raised lumps of paint in the road that goes du du du du du du dudo. And those chevrons are designed as an early warning system that you need to slow down because there's an end of the motorway, could be a roundabout, could be a set of lights, it could be an intersection. And those early warning systems, if we pay no attention to them, then we're either going to have an accident when we get to the top of that exit, or we're going to have to put our anchors on really, really hard and disrupt our flow. And if we do that, if we disrupt that flow and it goes from back here to back here again, we start to overthink. So we've got to recognise when does these urges start to come? Is it when you, to use the penalties, is it when getting close to the end of the extra time and you know it's coming to penalties? Is that when you start to think about, 'I've got to do penalties.' Or is it when it's just your turn, when it's just about to step up and have to perform? Does the emotions have become overwhelming then? So recognising in you, when does that happen? When does that urge start to come?
Step number three is refrain from taking action on that urge. Remember, we don't want to react to it. We want to respond to it. 'What do I do? What's my strategy? When this urge starts to come, what do I need to do?' Now I might need to shift my internal dialogue. I might need to think about my process. I might need to step into my next level of performer mode. I might need to step into my performance bubble. All of these are terms that I use with my athletes to make them way more resilient. But you want to have a process that you follow once you recognise that.
Step number four is to visualise this urge as a wave and you're riding it. Instead of reacting and making a sharp exit, think about that urge rising and then dissipating. If it rises and then it dissipates, then you can ride it out. If it rises and you react, then you've got no idea how you can follow through with that. So visualisation, see that strategy. Remember, visualisation is a creation. Mental imagery is a memory. So how we use that is to create a visualisation. Once you get that urge, what's my strategy? How do I go through this? And you take your thought process through from the initial urge all the way through to completion of riding that wave. So you create an outcome. If you then want to go through times it's worked in the past, when you've pushed through that urge, remember when you go and you access the bank of knowledge where you've been before, that mental imagery, you're going to also withdraw emotion. When we have visualisation and we have a creation, we can do that pragmatically without emotion. So just remember, visualisation is a creation. Mental imagery is an emotional memory. Both of them have very unique purposes: one to create an outcome; one to remember what it felt like when you followed it.
And the fifth strategy we want to implement when going through this is managing your breathing. We know that the human fight, flight, or freeze process will change a lot of mechanisms inside our body. We already know that it shuts down our immune system. We know that it changes the quality of oxygen blood flow to certain parts of our body. It also impacts our breathing. It makes our breathing a lot more shallow, which raises anxiety. So being able to focus on your breathing does two things:
One, it increases the amount of oxygenated blood we get going through our body, which increases our thought processes, allows our body to perform a much higher level.
It also allows us to focus. Remember, we talked about mental toughness, a lot of that is engaging our focus mode for a length or period of time. By having something that we can focus on clearly, like our breathing, allows us to focus on our mental engagement and sustained focus.
So breathing is a great way of recalibrating your focus. Rather than focus on the 80,000 people, and what could go wrong? Focus on your breathing and your process.
When we think about performing under pressure, I'm sure there's a lot more in this podcast than you thought involved in creating a strategy so that you can. We looked at having a very, very clear process. The better the blueprint, the more detailed the blueprint, the better the performance, the more reliable that is. The second ingredient was mental toughness, being able to engage our focus for a sustained period of time, proof of life, proof that I can do this. It doesn't matter what's going on around me, I can do this. The third ingredient was mental resilience, and we talked about riding that emotional urge, the wave of emotion, and making sure that we've got a process to be able to push through the uncomfortable, being comfortable with the uncomfortable.
I hope you've got a lot from this episode of Brain in the Game. I've tried to give you as much of the strategy as I possibly can around being able to perform under pressure.
Until our next episode, train smart and enjoy the ride. My name is Dave Diggle. I look forward to seeing you there.